One of the most popular NBA-related Internet memes is the idea that Russell Westbrook is not a pure point guard, and thus not the right point guard for the Thunder. He’s a ball hog, he needs to pass to Kevin Durant more, blah, blah, blah. Over the last few days, however, there has been a plethora of excellent writing recognizing Westbrook for what he is: a great point guard, pure or not. In Game 1, Westbrook showcased all the reasons why any attempt to slap the “not a point guard” label on him is all kinds of wrong. The 11 assists he tallied in Game 1 were nice, but the most impressive thing about his performance was the wade variety of passes and angles he saw to create those baskets for his teammates. Each of his 11 dimes came with a slightly different twist.
Assist #1 – Kevin Durant post-up
Here, the Thunder are trying to get Durant posted on Dwyane Wade after getting a switch in the pick-and-roll. Durant rolls right to the foul line and immediately tries to post Wade up. Because Westbrook draws LeBron James on the switch, he doesn’t have an immediate lane to hit Durant. Rather than trying to force a pass, Westbrook dribbles to his right and lobs the ball over Wade, who is now fronting Durant. Durant jab steps and nails a 3-pointer.
Assist #2 – Drop-off pass to Durant in transition
This is a fairly simple pass, but maybe not one that Westbrook would have made even a year ago. With the paint walled off by the Heat in transition, he spots Durant trailing out of the corner of his eye and hits him with a pass above the top of the arc for an open 3-pointer.
Assist #3 – P&R dump-off to Serge Ibaka
Westbrook gets the entry pass into the post on Dwyane Wade in the right corner. He gets a pin-down ball-screen from Kendrick Perkins and is essentially running a side pick-and-roll. Westbrook gets right into the middle of the lane and draws 3 defenders. Rather than trying to force a shot over Miami’s bigs, he slides a pass around them with his left hand to a waiting Ibaka for the dunk.
Assist #4 – James Harden flare-cut
Here, Harden does an excellent job working off of Perkins’ screen. He reads his defender, Mario Chalmers, who tries to shoot the gap on the screen, perfectly, and flares it out into the corner to give Westbrook an open passing lane. Harden nails the open 3-pointer.
Assist #5 – P&R roll man Ibaka
Here, Westbrook is working the high pick-and-roll with Serge Ibaka. Miami had a lot of success in the regular season aggressively trapping Westbrook on pick-and-roll plays, forcing him to make difficult passes and turning them into turnovers. Westbrook doesn’t hesitate around this Ibaka screen and drives right to the paint, not allowing himself to be trapped. He draws both his man – Wade – and Ibaka’s – Chris Bosh – slightly out of the lane with an ever-so-subtle in-and-out dribble at the elbow, freezing Bosh for just a second, just long enough that Westbrook can drop a pass to a diving Ibaka right over him. The pass gets there just before the help defense and Ibaka gets an easy basket.
Assist #6 – P&R pop man Ibaka
Again running the high pick-and-roll with Ibaka, Westbrook again aggressively drives around the screen, and he again draws both Wade and Bosh out of the lane. This time, Ibaka pops out toward the top of the key off his screen, and Westbrook waits until both men fully commit to the trap before turning around and zipping the ball back to Ibaka. Now Ibaka has the ball against an on-the-move defender – Bosh – and blows right by him for a dunk.
Assist #7 – Drive and draw weak
Westbrook gets the ball off a kick-out from the post on the weak side. He’s got the ball one-on-one against an on-the-move defender, pretty much a death sentence for the defense. He gets right into the lane, draws three defenders and dumps it off to Kendrick Perkins inside for a dunk. This is again a situation where, in the past, Westbrook may have tried to force a lay-up over the bigs or pulled up for a floater. Not anymore. Though his assists per game and assist percentage numbers have gone down, that doesn’t reflect Westbrook’s improving court vision. He just handles the ball less often as he’s ceded responsibility to Kevin Durant and James Harden, while at the same time taking on more of a scoring burden.
Assist #8 – Durant 3
Off an offensive rebound, Westbrook spots Durant wide open on the perimeter and KD drains another 3-pointer.
Assist #9 – Durant P&R outlet man
Here, Westbrook runs the pick-and-roll with Nick Collison. He can’t quite get into the lane to unleash his pull-up jumper or draw defenders to open up Collison on the roll, so he swings the ball back around to the outlet man, Durant, who is coming in behind the screen. Durant catches the ball against an on-the-move defender who seeped in just a little too far while protecting against a potential Westbrook drive, and KD goes right by him for a lay-up.
Assist #10 – Durant off-screen/slip screen
Here, OKC is running a modified version of their unstoppable pin-down play they ran against the San Antonio Spurs. After some initial action, Derek Fisher comes across the court to set a pin-down screen from Durant. KD looks like he is going to come set a ball screen for Russ after coming off Fisher’s screen, but he recognizes that neither defender stayed with him off Fisher’s pick and slips out to the deep wing, where Westbrook finds him for an open jumper.
Assist #11 – Collison transition
A touch pass in transition to Nick Collison for the game-sealing dunk.
Some of these are simple passes for Westbrook to make and he likely would have made them at any point in his young career. But others are the type of more advanced passes that we hadn’t really seen out of him before this season. He’s growing and maturing, making smarter decisions with the basketball with every passing game. He had just two turnovers to these 11 assists in Game 1. It doesn’t seem as though the Heat have anyone who can really keep him out of the lane other than LeBron, and he’s presumably going to be kind of busy dealing with Durant for much of the series. If Westbrook can continue to attack, get to the middle of the floor and draw multiple defenders, passing lanes will be open. If he keeps making the simple passes, he’ll get his fair share of assists. But if he can keep making the more difficult ones, the ones we expect out of “pure” point guards, he’ll rack up a few more double-digit assist performances like Game 1.